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Little Dorrit

Little Dorrit

Little Dorrit/67

CHAPTER 29. A Plea in the Marshalsea

Haggard anxiety and remorse are bad companions to be barred up with.Brooding all day, and resting very little indeed at night, will notarm a man against misery. Next morning, Clennam felt that his health wassinking, as his spirits had already sunk and that the weight under whichhe bent was bearing him down.

Night after night he had risen from his bed of wretchedness at twelve orone o'clock, and had sat at his window watching the sickly lamps in theyard, and looking upward for the first wan trace of day, hours before itwas possible that the sky could show it to him. Now when the night came,he could not even persuade himself to undress.

For a burning restlessness set in, an agonised impatience of the prison,and a conviction that he was going to break his heart and die there,which caused him indescribable suffering. His dread and hatred of theplace became so intense that he felt it a labour to draw his breath init. The sensation of being stifled sometimes so overpowered him, thathe would stand at the window holding his throat and gasping. At thesame time a longing for other air, and a yearning to be beyond the blindblank wall, made him feel as if he must go mad with the ardour of thedesire.

Many other prisoners had had experience of this condition before him,and its violence and continuity had worn themselves out in their cases,as they did in his. Two nights and a day exhausted it. It came back byfits, but those grew fainter and returned at lengthening intervals. Adesolate calm succeeded; and the middle of the week found him settleddown in the despondency of low, slow fever.

With Cavalletto and Pancks away, he had no visitors to fear but Mr andMrs Plornish. His anxiety, in reference to that worthy pair, was thatthey should not come near him; for, in the morbid state of his nerves,he sought to be left alone, and spared the being seen so subdued andweak. He wrote a note to Mrs Plornish representing himself as occupiedwith his affairs, and bound by the necessity of devoting himself tothem, to remain for a time even without the pleasant interruption ofa sight of her kind face. As to Young John, who looked in daily at acertain hour, when the turnkeys were relieved, to ask if he could doanything for him; he always made a pretence of being engaged in writing,and to answer cheerfully in the negative. The subject of their onlylong conversation had never been revived between them. Through all thesechanges of unhappiness, however, it had never lost its hold on Clennam'smind.

The sixth day of the appointed week was a moist, hot, misty day. Itseemed as though the prison's poverty, and shabbiness, and dirt, weregrowing in the sultry atmosphere. With an aching head and a weary heart,Clennam had watched the miserable night out, listening to the fall ofrain on the yard pavement, thinking of its softer fall upon the countryearth. A blurred circle of yellow haze had risen up in the sky in lieuof sun, and he had watched the patch it put upon his wall, like a bit ofthe prison's raggedness. He had heard the gates open; and the badly shodfeet that waited outside shuffle in; and the sweeping, and pumping,and moving about, begin, which commenced the prison morning. So ill andfaint that he was obliged to rest many times in the process of gettinghimself washed, he had at length crept to his chair by the open window.In it he sat dozing, while the old woman who arranged his room wentthrough her morning's work.

Light of head with want of sleep and want of food (his appetite, andeven his sense of taste, having forsaken him), he had been two or threetimes conscious, in the night, of going astray. He had heard fragmentsof tunes and songs in the warm wind, which he knew had no existence.Now that he began to doze in exhaustion, he heard them again; and voicesseemed to address him, and he answered, and started.

Dozing and dreaming, without the power of reckoning time, so thata minute might have been an hour and an hour a minute, some abidingimpression of a garden stole over him--a garden of flowers, with adamp warm wind gently stirring their scents. It required such a painfuleffort to lift his head for the purpose of inquiring into this, orinquiring into anything, that the impression appeared to have becomequite an old and importunate one when he looked round. Beside thetea-cup on his table he saw, then, a blooming nosegay: a wonderfulhandful of the choicest and most lovely flowers.

Nothing had ever appeared so beautiful in his sight. He took them up andinhaled their fragrance, and he lifted them to his hot head, and he putthem down and opened his parched hands to them, as cold hands are openedto receive the cheering of a fire. It was not until he had delighted inthem for some time, that he wondered who had sent them; and opened hisdoor to ask the woman who must have put them there, how they had comeinto her hands. But she was gone, and seemed to have been long gone; forthe tea she had left for him on the table was cold. He tried to drinksome, but could not bear the odour of it: so he crept back to his chairby the open window, and put the flowers on the little round table ofold.

When the first faintness consequent on having moved about had left him,he subsided into his former state. One of the night-tunes was playingin the wind, when the door of his room seemed to open to a light touch,and, after a moment's pause, a quiet figure seemed to stand there, witha black mantle on it. It seemed to draw the mantle off and drop it onthe ground, and then it seemed to be his Little Dorrit in her old, worndress. It seemed to tremble, and to clasp its hands, and to smile, andto burst into tears.

He roused himself, and cried out. And then he saw, in the loving,pitying, sorrowing, dear face, as in a mirror, how changed he was; andshe came towards him; and with her hands laid on his breast to keep himin his chair, and with her knees upon the floor at his feet, and withher lips raised up to kiss him, and with her tears dropping on him asthe rain from Heaven had dropped upon the flowers, Little Dorrit, aliving presence, called him by his name.

'O, my best friend! Dear Mr Clennam, don't let me see you weep! Unlessyou weep with pleasure to see me. I hope you do. Your own poor childcome back!'

So faithful, tender, and unspoiled by Fortune. In the sound of hervoice, in the light of her eyes, in the touch of her hands, soAngelically comforting and true!

As he embraced her, she said to him, 'They never told me you were ill,'and drawing an arm softly round his neck, laid his head upon her bosom,put a hand upon his head, and resting her cheek upon that hand, nursedhim as lovingly, and GOD knows as innocently, as she had nursed herfather in that room when she had been but a baby, needing all the carefrom others that she took of them.

When he could speak, he said, 'Is it possible that you have come to me?And in this dress?'

'I hoped you would like me better in this dress than any other. I havealways kept it by me, to remind me: though I wanted no reminding. I amnot alone, you see. I have brought an old friend with me.'

Looking round, he saw Maggy in her big cap which had been longabandoned, with a basket on her arm as in the bygone days, chucklingrapturously.

'It was only yesterday evening that I came to London with my brother.I sent round to Mrs Plornish almost as soon as we arrived, that I mighthear of you and let you know I had come. Then I heard that you werehere. Did you happen to think of me in the night? I almost believe youmust have thought of me a little. I thought of you so anxiously, and itappeared so long to morning.'

'I have thought of you--' he hesitated what to call her. She perceivedit in an instant.

'You have not spoken to me by my right name yet. You know what my rightname always is with you.'

'I have thought of you, Little Dorrit, every day, every hour, everyminute, since I have been here.'

'Have you? Have you?'

He saw the bright delight of her face, and the flush that kindled init, with a feeling of shame. He, a broken, bankrupt, sick, dishonouredprisoner.

'I was here before the gates were opened, but I was afraid to comestraight to you. I should have done you more harm than good, at first;for the prison was so familiar and yet so strange, and it brought backso many remembrances of my poor father, and of you too, that at firstit overpowered me. But we went to Mr Chivery before we came to the gate,and he brought us in, and got John's room for us--my poor old room, youknow--and we waited there a little. I brought the flowers to the door,but you didn't hear me.'

She looked something more womanly than when she had gone away, and theripening touch of the Italian sun was visible upon her face. But,otherwise, she was quite unchanged. The same deep, timid earnestnessthat he had always seen in her, and never without emotion, he saw still.If it had a new meaning that smote him to the heart, the change was inhis perception, not in her.

She took off her old bonnet, hung it in the old place, and noiselesslybegan, with Maggy's help, to make his room as fresh and neat as it couldbe made, and to sprinkle it with a pleasant-smelling water. When thatwas done, the basket, which was filled with grapes and other fruit,was unpacked, and all its contents were quietly put away. When that wasdone, a moment's whisper despatched Maggy to despatch somebody else tofill the basket again; which soon came back replenished with newstores, from which a present provision of cooling drink and jelly, anda prospective supply of roast chicken and wine and water, were the firstextracts. These various arrangements completed, she took out her oldneedle-case to make him a curtain for his window; and thus, with a quietreigning in the room, that seemed to diffuse itself through the elsenoisy prison, he found himself composed in his chair, with Little Dorritworking at his side.

To see the modest head again bent down over its task, and the nimblefingers busy at their old work--though she was not so absorbed in it,but that her compassionate eyes were often raised to his face, and, whenthey drooped again had tears in them--to be so consoled and comforted,and to believe that all the devotion of this great nature was turned tohim in his adversity to pour out its inexhaustible wealth of goodnessupon him, did not steady Clennam's trembling voice or hand, orstrengthen him in his weakness. Yet it inspired him with an inwardfortitude, that rose with his love. And how dearly he loved her now,what words can tell!

As they sat side by side in the shadow of the wall, the shadow fell likelight upon him. She would not let him speak much, and he lay back inhis chair, looking at her. Now and again she would rise and give himthe glass that he might drink, or would smooth the resting-place of hishead; then she would gently resume her seat by him, and bend over herwork again.

The shadow moved with the sun, but she never moved from his side, exceptto wait upon him. The sun went down and she was still there. She haddone her work now, and her hand, faltering on the arm of his chair sinceits last tending of him, was hesitating there yet. He laid his hand uponit, and it clasped him with a trembling supplication.

'Dear Mr Clennam, I must say something to you before I go. I have put itoff from hour to hour, but I must say it.'

'I too, dear Little Dorrit. I have put off what I must say.'

She nervously moved her hand towards his lips as if to stop him; then itdropped, trembling, into its former place.

'I am not going abroad again. My brother is, but I am not. He was alwaysattached to me, and he is so grateful to me now--so much too grateful,for it is only because I happened to be with him in his illness--thathe says I shall be free to stay where I like best, and to do what I likebest. He only wishes me to be happy, he says.'

There was one bright star shining in the sky. She looked up at it whileshe spoke, as if it were the fervent purpose of her own heart shiningabove her.

'You will understand, I dare say, without my telling you, that mybrother has come home to find my dear father's will, and to takepossession of his property. He says, if there is a will, he is sure Ishall be left rich; and if there is none, that he will make me so.'

He would have spoken; but she put up her trembling hand again, and hestopped.

'I have no use for money, I have no wish for it. It would be of no valueat all to me but for your sake. I could not be rich, and you here. Imust always be much worse than poor, with you distressed. Will you letme lend you all I have? Will you let me give it you? Will you let meshow you that I have never forgotten, that I never can forget, yourprotection of me when this was my home? Dear Mr Clennam, make me of allthe world the happiest, by saying Yes? Make me as happy as I can be inleaving you here, by saying nothing to-night, and letting me goaway with the hope that you will think of it kindly; and that for mysake--not for yours, for mine, for nobody's but mine!--you will give methe greatest joy I can experience on earth, the joy of knowing that Ihave been serviceable to you, and that I have paid some little of thegreat debt of my affection and gratitude. I can't say what I wish tosay. I can't visit you here where I have lived so long, I can't think ofyou here where I have seen so much, and be as calm and comforting as Iought. My tears will make their way. I cannot keep them back. Butpray, pray, pray, do not turn from your Little Dorrit, now, in youraffliction! Pray, pray, pray, I beg you and implore you with all mygrieving heart, my friend--my dear!--take all I have, and make it aBlessing to me!'

The star had shone on her face until now, when her face sank upon hishand and her own.

It had grown darker when he raised her in his encircling arm, and softlyanswered her.

'No, darling Little Dorrit. No, my child. I must not hear of such asacrifice. Liberty and hope would be so dear, bought at such a price,that I could never support their weight, never bear the reproach ofpossessing them. But with what ardent thankfulness and love I say this,I may call Heaven to witness!'

'And yet you will not let me be faithful to you in your affliction?'

'Say, dearest Little Dorrit, and yet I will try to be faithful to you.If, in the bygone days when this was your home and when this was yourdress, I had understood myself (I speak only of myself) better, andhad read the secrets of my own breast more distinctly; if, through myreserve and self-mistrust, I had discerned a light that I see brightlynow when it has passed far away, and my weak footsteps can neverovertake it; if I had then known, and told you that I loved and honouredyou, not as the poor child I used to call you, but as a woman whosetrue hand would raise me high above myself and make me a far happier andbetter man; if I had so used the opportunity there is no recalling--asI wish I had, O I wish I had!--and if something had kept us apart then,when I was moderately thriving, and when you were poor; I might have metyour noble offer of your fortune, dearest girl, with other words thanthese, and still have blushed to touch it. But, as it is, I must nevertouch it, never!'

She besought him, more pathetically and earnestly, with her littlesupplicatory hand, than she could have done in any words.

'I am disgraced enough, my Little Dorrit. I must not descend so low asthat, and carry you--so dear, so generous, so good--down with me. GODbless you, GOD reward you! It is past.'

He took her in his arms, as if she had been his daughter.

'Always so much older, so much rougher, and so much less worthy, evenwhat I was must be dismissed by both of us, and you must see me only asI am. I put this parting kiss upon your cheek, my child--who might havebeen more near to me, who never could have been more dear--a ruined manfar removed from you, for ever separated from you, whose course isrun while yours is but beginning. I have not the courage to ask to beforgotten by you in my humiliation; but I ask to be remembered only as Iam.'

The bell began to ring, warning visitors to depart. He took her mantlefrom the wall, and tenderly wrapped it round her.

'One other word, my Little Dorrit. A hard one to me, but it is anecessary one. The time when you and this prison had anything in commonhas long gone by. Do you understand?'

'O! you will never say to me,' she cried, weeping bitterly, and holdingup her clasped hands in entreaty, 'that I am not to come back any more!You will surely not desert me so!'

'I would say it, if I could; but I have not the courage quite to shutout this dear face, and abandon all hope of its return. But do not comesoon, do not come often! This is now a tainted place, and I well knowthe taint of it clings to me. You belong to much brighter and betterscenes. You are not to look back here, my Little Dorrit; you are to lookaway to very different and much happier paths. Again, GOD bless you inthem! GOD reward you!'

Maggy, who had fallen into very low spirits, here cried, 'Oh get himinto a hospital; do get him into a hospital, Mother! He'll never looklike hisself again, if he an't got into a hospital. And then the littlewoman as was always a spinning at her wheel, she can go to the cupboardwith the Princess, and say, what do you keep the Chicking there for? andthen they can take it out and give it to him, and then all be happy!'

The interruption was seasonable, for the bell had nearly rung itselfout. Again tenderly wrapping her mantle about her, and taking her on hisarm (though, but for her visit, he was almost too weak to walk), Arthurled Little Dorrit down-stairs. She was the last visitor to pass out atthe Lodge, and the gate jarred heavily and hopelessly upon her.

With the funeral clang that it sounded into Arthur's heart, his sense ofweakness returned. It was a toilsome journey up-stairs to his room, andhe re-entered its dark solitary precincts in unutterable misery.

When it was almost midnight, and the prison had long been quiet, acautious creak came up the stairs, and a cautious tap of a key was givenat his door. It was Young John. He glided in, in his stockings, and heldthe door closed, while he spoke in a whisper.

'It's against all rules, but I don't mind. I was determined to comethrough, and come to you.'

'What is the matter?'

'Nothing's the matter, sir. I was waiting in the court-yard for MissDorrit when she came out. I thought you'd like some one to see that shewas safe.'

'Thank you, thank you! You took her home, John?'

'I saw her to her hotel. The same that Mr Dorrit was at. Miss Dorritwalked all the way, and talked to me so kind, it quite knocked me over.Why do you think she walked instead of riding?'

'I don't know, John.'

'To talk about you. She said to me, ”John, you was always honourable,and if you'll promise me that you will take care of him, and never lethim want for help and comfort when I am not there, my mind will be atrest so far.” I promised her. And I'll stand by you,' said John Chivery,'for ever!'

Clennam, much affected, stretched out his hand to this honest spirit.

'Before I take it,' said John, looking at it, without coming from thedoor, 'guess what message Miss Dorrit gave me.'

Clennam shook his head.

'”Tell him,”' repeated John, in a distinct, though quavering voice,'”that his Little Dorrit sent him her undying love.” Now it's delivered.Have I been honourable, sir?'

'Very, very!'

'Will you tell Miss Dorrit I've been honourable, sir?'

'I will indeed.'

'There's my hand, sir,' said John, 'and I'll stand by you forever!'

After a hearty squeeze, he disappeared with the same cautious creak uponthe stair, crept shoeless over the pavement of the yard, and, lockingthe gates behind him, passed out into the front where he had left hisshoes. If the same way had been paved with burning ploughshares, it isnot at all improbable that John would have traversed it with the samedevotion, for the same purpose.